Humanitarian organizations won’t listen to groups on the ground, in part because of institutionalized racism

30 June 2021
Michael N. Barnett

by Michael N. Barnett

University Professor, George Washington University & CHS Alliance Board Member

My current research examines the power and inequality in the humanitarian architecture, produced by the entanglement of history, discourses and paternalism, and interests. Based on interviews, surveys and primary and secondary research – including the recent Who Governs? survey that many CHS Alliance members took part in – my research demonstrates that aid organizations in the West and global south provide different reasons for the failure of localization.

In addition to standard self-interest, those from major international aid agencies worry that localization will do more harm than good until local aid organizations build up their capacity and know-how. In their view, a premature transfer of power would probably cost lives. International nongovernmental organizations also reference the specific conditions donors place on resources, including, importantly, financial accountability. Donors want assurances that the funding they provide goes toward addressing humanitarian needs, rather than lining the pockets of corrupt officials. NGOs point out that local officials and local groups may not have the administrative means to provide this level of transparency.

In contrast, aid organizations based in the global south see Western aid organizations falling short because they are protecting their organizational interests and budgets. They also claim if they lack capacity and competency then Western aid agencies bear some of the blame. Large humanitarian organizations hire away local talent, hold meetings without including local agencies, treat local agencies as hired help and devalue local knowledge in favor of the expertise of international aid workers. Southern aid agencies also point to institutionalized racism.

Is there a link between racism and perceived competence? My interviews with staff from Western and non-Western organizations reveal the racialized discourse of competence. It is no secret that the concepts and goals of today’s humanitarian sector emerged from imperialism and colonialism, as Christian countries in the West aspired to civilize “barbarians.” Humanitarianism was explicitly about White Westerners attempting to save the “darker” races.

Times have changed, and the explicit racism of the 19th century steadily disappeared over the 20th century with decolonization and the ascending discourse of equality. Yet racism and discrimination did not disappear but rather became coded; in the humanitarian sector it shaped discussions about “capacity building” and measures of “competence.”

Over the past few decades, the markers of competence in this sector have taken on a greater importance, as humanitarian organizations focused on knowledge, expertise and professionalism. Despite the scientific and neutral tone of these benchmarks, the humanitarian sector has racialized “competence” in at least two respects.

First, humanitarian agencies prioritize Western measures of competence, even if these markers have little objective effect on outcomes. That has put a premium on masters and certificate programs offered by Western universities — but these programs aren’t free, which means cost and proximity issues may discourage non-Westerners from applying.

Second, when non-Westerners gain these certifications, Western organizations may question their competence nonetheless, as anthropologist Adia Benton points out. In my research on the inequalities in international humanitarian efforts and the resistance to localization, staff members from organizations in the global south shared many stories of racism when dealing with Western aid agencies.

Southern aid agencies and workers of color have long pointed out how institutionalized racism within humanitarian organizations marginalizes experts and staff of color, but also hurts those in direct need of this aid. A few Western organizations, including Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders, have now pledged to dismantle racism in their workplace culture and hiring practices. These discussions include whether and how racism accounts for the foot-dragging on localization.

The World Humanitarian Summit version of localization is probably dead. But the demand by aid agencies and governments in the global south for more resources, authority and power in providing relief to the affected populations in their communities is not. Localization is now being overtaken by demands to decolonize aid, and rethink ways to bypass or regulate the international aid framework. The localization path envisaged five years ago might be dead, but it is far from forgotten.

*This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the Washington Post on 8 June 2021*

CHS Alliance will continue our programme of national member-led workshops and interactions with national and local organisations in the coming months to generate learning and update our plans, including our upcoming 2022 strategy, to take the CHS closer to the people we serve.

Join us at the events on taking the CHS closer to the people we serve in your country or region to share your insights.

Please contact Bonaventure Sokpoh, CHS Alliance Senior Advisor on CHS and Outreach, at if you would like to discuss these plans in more detail.